Emotion Wrapped in a Veil of Reason

 “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.”

― Dorothy Day

            A woman comes home early from work and finds her husband in bed with another woman. She stabs him. Later he dies of his wounds. At her defense hearing, she says she remembers nothing after seeing them in bed together. What punishment should she get?

            I present this case for debate in every cycle of my adult ESOL class (English for Speakers of Other Languages, previously known as ESL, English as a Second Language, previously known as “learning English”). Of all the suggestions in all the ESOL conversation books, this story is the best. It gives me a chance to teach words and phrases connected to the law, including death penalty, life sentence, ten-year sentence, probation, acquittal. That’s my excuse. In reality these discussions are the most entertaining classes of the year.

 The class divides into two or three teams.  Each team is supposed to come to an agreement and explain their decision to the other teams.

No matter how I divide the class, the judgment splits clearly and without exception along a gender line. The men are on the severe end of the spectrum; the women are heatedly on the lenient end: often acquittal, sometimes probation.  On rare occasion a woman or two would send the killer to a light sentence in jail. 

Aside from helping with English, my biggest challenge is to keep the debaters calm enough to speak only in English. I don’t guide the discussion. No matter how the teams are broken up, the discussion ends up men vs. women.

Try the scenario as a party game. Don’t give away the plot ahead of time. Give the guests a little more distance than the murderous wife and the stabbed husband had, but not the distance of a sequestered jury. Limit the punishment options to four or five, include acquittal and death penalty (if you live in Massachusetts, make it life imprisonment). See what happens.

On the other hand, when I present a discussion about the death penalty, there is general agreement that the penalty is wrong. Few believe that the death penalty deters crime. Even fewer believe that it is morally right.  I’ve never taught in Texas.

Punishment may be one of the most subjective moral decisions we make. It is much more complex than deciding whether something is okay, bad, really bad, or evil.

 A friend of mine who is a lawyer insists that all law-breakers should be punished the same: death penalty. Murder or jaywalking, the death penalty would keep society in line. A planet in a Star Trek episode had that law. I don’t think it was called Texas.

“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” That quote from Shakespeare describes the first step necessary in establishing a totalitarian  regime. We need lawyers because we decide punishment with emotion wrapped in a veil of reason. That’s also why we hate lawyers. Pity the poor lawyers who would face the anger of the  women in my class and the shock of the stunned men.

When my niece was a toddler, sometimes I had to use my stern voice. One afternoon she insisted on crawling up onto the tabletop which was set for dinner, complete with knives and forks. Finally I gave her a bop on the bottom of her diaper. She turned and looked at me with incredulous horror.  I’d imposed the toddler’s equivalent of the death penalty! She sulked for a good five minutes until Telly Tubbies came on.

“Turning the other cheek” is the hardest test of Jesus’ followers. Or for me anyway. When a person harms someone, either physically or emotionally, whom we love deeply, it is difficult not to harbor a lust for revenge.  The only reason I’d turn the other cheek is so I could get in a sucker punch.

One man wrote that he was a Christian except that he was an “eye for an eye” kind of guy.  Like I’m a Leonardo Da Vinci except I can’t draw.

The people I’d love to get my hands on are long dead. My only comfort is in believing that, should they rise from the dead and stand before me, I’d trust the teaching, change my heart…. and only give them a ten-year sentence.

Composting Rock

All is impermanence. Thus says the Buddha.  All things change, all is movement. We sort of get it. We pick and chose what we believe is impermanent and what isn’t. But we live such a short amount of time that we witness the life cycle of only the most fragile things: tomato plants, kale,  butterflies, crayons, chocolate cake, ourselves.

While our bodies and souls love the rhythms of nature’s constant changes, such as the ocean waves, our minds have a more difficult time with the concept.  After all, its job is to snatch those random bits of sensory input and organize them to make some sort of sense. How is it supposed to do that with all the data changing constantly? Simple. By pretending that things don’t change. Or at least that they stay still long enough to put them in some kind of order before they get scrambled up again. Once my mind catches hold of a really good thought, it hangs onto it for dear life. It takes a lot of effort to make it loosen up and let go. No wonder I’m exhausted.

 I asked my meditation students to imagine that we lived for two-thousand years. Instead of taking a week’s vacation to sit by the ocean and watch the beauty of its changes, we could take a three hundred year vacation to sit by Route 91 and watch it crumble. We could enjoy the impermanence of concrete. How relaxing that would be!

But what about poor God? Is God the only unchanging person/place/thing in the entire universe? Some of us believe so… rock of ages and so on. But happily, God cannot be stopped, halted, tripped up or frozen in time.

However, until we get with the impermanence program, we’ll keep trying to freeze-dry God. We waste a lot of energy trying to ignore the infinite mysteries of our friends and enemies, even more so with the Infinite. In general, pretending our spouses and siblings are permanent, unchanging beings screws up our relationships.  And relating to God is like standing knee-deep in the ocean, feeling the sensation of the ground moving under us, unable to take in the whole thing, unable to predict the next motion. Oh happy impermanence!

I came to these thoughts while digging rocks that Earth keeps burping up into the garden. What is the purpose of these damned rocks?  What the hell can the purpose of one billion of them be in our little garden. I held a heavy rock in my hand, tired of being cranky, and watched it. And watched it. Until I recognized it. That rock is a clod of slowly composting soil. And I do mean slowly. In a few thousand years that rock will compost completely into dirt. It will release the minerals we need to eat and send them up into carrots and beets. If I can wait for peanut shells to decompose, surely I can wait for a rock to disintegrate. What’s the rush?

 So I threw it onto one of our many rock piles.  They are now officially ”rock compost.” In a few thousand years someone will dig into a tiny mound of dirt to plant carrots and wonder at how smooth and fine the dirt in in that mound is. That gardener will be so happy to find a mound of rock-less soil.

I can hear God laughing.

Alice Goes World-wide

After a year or so of writing a column for the 1st Congregational Church in Ashfield, I decided to write virtually….which is not the same as virtually writing since I think that  means that you, the reader, could read whatever you wanted regardless of what I had written.  Though I may be wrong about that.

I tried Facebook, twice, but still don’t quite get the concept.  A blog seems less immediate and more writing-like. If you’ve enjoyed the articles, subscribe.  If you didn’t, subscribe anyway.  You never know when I may come up with something you’ll like.  Comments welcome. I will be posting more than once a month and may feel freer to be disrespectful on my own.  Please subscribe to the Ashfield News as well. Lots of good reading there.